cj#955> Uncle Tom’s Cell – The New Slavery


Richard Moore

Date: Fri, 04 Jun 1999 00:51:10 -0700
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From: "Dr. I Crow X" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: The New Slavery

>From •••@••.•••  Sun May 30 19:50:22 1999
Date: Sun, 30 May 1999 18:04:14 -0700 (PDT)
From: Art McGee <•••@••.•••>
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Uncle Tom's Cell
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Perspective Magazine

February 1999

Uncle Tom's Cell

Prison labor gives a market face to an old idea--slavery.

by Josh Levin

It is morning, and you wake in a cement cell to the sound of a nightstick
on bars. You proceed to join a sea of primarily black faces in an assembly
line as white guards with shotguns and tasers stroll between the ranks,
punishing inefficient laborers. With wages as low as 11 cents an hour and
no benefits or vacations, the prisoners must choose between labor and
longer sentences, since "good time" policies shave days from the captivity
period for days worked. This is not a description of a sweatshop in a
developing country, but of a fascistic marriage between private enterprise
and state that bears a frightening resemblance to slavery--prison labor.

Prison labor has a rich history in the United States. After the end of
slavery, the "convict leasing" program was instituted in the South. Along
with Black Codes, this program functioned to return African Americans to
the plantations. Land owners would bid to receive complete control over the
lives and labor of prisoners, of whom only a negligible number were white.
African American laborers were whipped so severely that survivors would be
crippled for life. Women were flogged, hung by their wrists, and placed in
solitary confinement. Before long, journalists, community members,
ministers, women's groups, and union organizers rallied against this
oppressive system. By the 1930s, every state had abolished convict leasing.
Unfortunately, leasing was replaced by state-run chain-gangs, a despicable
form of slavery and torture. Again, stories of teenagers being beaten to
death or dying in solitary "sweat boxes" created public outrage, and chain
gangs were abolished in the '50s.

Yet in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation that has once again
allowed private corporations to exploit this captive labor market for
profit. Although prison-made goods were initially only manufactured for
state agencies, they now flow into all sectors of the economy, competing
with outside companies and jobs. Corporations ranging from J.C. Penny and
Victoria's Secret to IBM and Toys R Us utilize prison labor to cut costs
and increase profit margins. In fact, the next time you call TWA to make
airline reservations, you may be speaking to one of 300 youth offenders
working as receptionists in a Los Angeles prison.

The U.S. prison population has grown by 300 percent since 1980, making us
by far the world's leader in imprisoning our own population, greatly
surpassing our nearest competitors, South Africa and the former USSR.
Enough people are incarcerated every two days to fill the New Orleans
Superdome. Most of these prisoners are drug-related offenders, and programs
focusing on rehabilitation and drug treatment are more cost-effective in
the long run. Prison/hospitals, halfway houses, and other experimental
community programs cost less to run and have much lower rates of
recidivism. Yet prison labor is replacing educational and other programs
because it requires less funding within the prison while keeping inmates
busy. The goal of incarceration is becoming more and more to reap profits,
and a member of the South Carolina Division of Correctional Industries
states that "rehabilitation is considered to be a byproduct."

Work programs have been protected under the guise of "job training." Yet
when an offender enters a California prison, he is surveyed for over 50
skills and placed according to his ability--with no intent to train him in
anything new. In a poll of prison industry leaders, 39 percent said that
profit orientation was the most important issue of prison labor, while only
12 percent said rehabilitation. Escod Industries, one of IBM's main
suppliers of electronic cables, employs 250 inmates at Evans Correctional
Facility in South Carolina. The plant manager, Bert Christy, "believes many
inmate workers are over-qualified for the jobs they hold," which would not
seem to be advancing the skills of the prisoners. Furthermore, one must
question the extent to which these skills manage to keep people out of
prison, if the offenders are entering the facilities already trained.

Escod Industries moved to South Carolina after abandoning plans to open
operations in Mexico because the wages of the American prisoners undercut
those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. This incentive was also
combined with the $250,000 "equipment subsidy" given to Escod by the state
and the offer of industrial space at below-market rent. Jostens, Inc. has
40 women in Leah Correctional Facility sewing and packaging graduation
gowns. The work is similar to that of garment production in the developing
world, and Jostens president Merv Epstein warns: "Keep it simple--put the
least complex sewing jobs you have inside the prison, and don't make
frequent style changes."

Globalization has created a service-based economy in the United States, and
much manual, labor-intensive production has moved elsewhere. And thus while
prison labor mimics working conditions in the developing world and can
compete with overseas production, the fields in which the inmates are
gaining experience may not hold jobs for them on the American market once
they leave.

Prison Labor also tends to have very little oversight. California's Prison
Industry Authority (PIA) is an "in-house" prison labor system, which means
that the government agency runs the inmate workforce and sells the goods
itself, both in the public and private sector. The Prison Industries Board
(PIB), which is meant to oversee PIA, "does not even function" and has
little authority, according to Leonard Greenstone, a former member. The PIB
is appointed by Jim Gomez, who is both the head of the California
Department of Corrections and of PIA. Yet Gomez has the most to gain from
expansion of prisons and PIA. "Look at the dynasty that's growing. The
bigger the industry, the more money and power Mr. Gomez has," says
Greenstone. The PIA practices what is called "mandatory source
preferencing," in which California State Agencies must buy their furniture,
clothing, etc. from California prison labor. The manufacturers receive
constant complaints about products that are overpriced, of poor quality,
and delivered late. "I have a real difficult time buying from an agency
that has a gun to my head," complains a California State Universities
commodities buyer.

PIA has become autonomous, profit-driven, inefficient, and unchecked. "Is
it good public policy. for one state agency to essentially profit off
another?" asks Fred Forrer, a state auditor. Hundreds of businesses have
complained that they cannot compete with either joint-ventures or
"in-house" prison labor systems such as California's PIA specifically,
which can undercut the costs of production when dealing with captive labor
as well as monopolize the supply market. PIA only pays 30 to 90 cents an
hour, and the inmates obviously receive no holidays or benefits. PIA only
pays 1 to 3 cents per square foot of warehouse space, and it sets prices
higher than the market's. PIA also receives interest-free loans from the
government, and it pays no local, state, or federal income taxes.

Prison Labor is inherently prone to political corruption. On the most basic
level, it produces a profit incentive for politicians to build prisons,
increase arrests, and extend sentences. Riding the "get tough on crime"
attitude in America and a public demand to cut prisoner benefits and
programs, companies that utilize prison labor are fueling the prison boom
in the United States. This new aspect of the prison-industrial complex
shows itself in many examples: questionable campaign contributions,
political favors, and the movement of individuals back and forth from
political posts to managerial posts in a prison industry.

For instance, Fabry Glove, Inc., a Wisconsin glove maker, gave $2,500 to
Governor Tommy Thompson's campaign. Following the contribution, the Prison
Industries Board, which Thompson had appointed, gave the company a sole
prison labor contract. The state then proceeded to buy $314,000 worth of
industrial equipment for Fabry Glove with tax dollars. Fabry also received
loans with below-market interest rates usually reserved for state agencies.
Furthermore, the state buys the raw materials for Fabry Glove and is
reimbursed from sales, which means that taxpayers eat the cost of errors
made by the company. Finally, the government pays for shipping raw
materials into the prison and also ships all finished products out. Fabry
Glove and many other joint-ventures are simply a redirection of tax money
into private companies as political favors. As journalist Phil Smith puts
it, "The punishment juggernaut of the Reagan-Bush years spawned an array of
private enterprises locked in a parasitic embrace with the state," one type
being the hundreds of firms now using the unionless, sub-minimum-wage
prisoners of the state.

Reagan's globalization and exportation of American manufacturing jobs has
coincided with an incredible explosion of the prison population, bringing
us up to 1.7 million incarcerated Americans. Jobless people are more likely
to commit crimes, but the growth in prisons has swallowed jobs, all the
while forcing a sector of the American labor force to work for pennies in
sweatshop conditions. Prison labor reaps huge profits for a small few and
helps to perpetuate an inefficient and racially skewed system. Prison labor
not only subjugates those behind bars, but also hurts Americans in terms of
the high costs of prison expansion, high rates of recidivism, and loss of
jobs. The growth of prison labor brings America one step closer to
resembling a fascist state, in which economic disparity is defined by two
distinct classes--one free and one behind bars.

(c) 1999 Perspective Magazine

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